The Moral Defense of Homosexuality: Why Every Argument against Gay Rights Fails
by Chris Meyers, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. ISBN-10: 1442249315; ISBN-13: 978-1442249318.
This is a unique book on the topic of gay rights for several reasons. First, Chris Meyers admits, right in the preface, that he is a “straight man with very little acquaintance with gay people.” This gives him a unique outsider perspective of gay rights, making it difficult for those who oppose gay rights to accuse him of bias, since he has no personal axe to grind. Second, and related to the first reason, is that he approaches the subject as a moral philosopher, which he is by training. Lastly, because he is an outsider, and has not had much contact with gays or the gay community, he has chosen to use the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” throughout the book, terminology, that although clinically correct, is frowned on within the gay community. My hope is that this oversight will be forgiven him by the gay community, as Meyers makes very cogent arguments, as the title promises, contra all the major arguments against gay rights.
Meyers’ primary focus is on same-sex marriage, rather than on gay rights more generally, because same-sex marriage has been the most hotly contested gay right of recent times. Even since the Supreme Court has upheld its legality, gay marriage continues to be contested within churches, and a lot of noise continues to be made by political conservatives over the issue. In spite of this emphasis, Meyers does touch on other gay rights as well, such as the right to not be discriminated against in employment or in the marketplace on the basis of sexual or gender orientation. As is known by most gay rights advocates, a gay person can lose their job due to their sexual orientation, and many states continue to argue that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to gays. The arguments presented by Meyers in this book easily apply to these issues as well, and he advocates for full protection under the law for gays, just as is provided to other groups.
Meyers, as is typical for philosophers, takes a systematic approach to the subject and begins the book by outlining why gay rights is a moral issue, on par with similar issues of discrimination.
Few people in the United States today would accept laws banning people from serving in the military due to their race, religion, or political affiliation. Nor would they accept the idea that couples belonging to a certain race, religion, or political affiliation should not have their marriages recognized or should be legally prevented from adopting children. And we do not allow job discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or political affiliation. So why should sexual orientation be any different?”
He then outlines how moral philosophers approach issues of this sort.
As part of the groundwork, Meyers also provides a brief overview of how public opinion has changed with regard to gay rights, warning that even though opinion seems to have shifted more and more strongly in favor of gay rights, it could swing back the other direction again if the arguments against gay rights are not thoroughly countered with careful and objective arguments based in moral philosophy. He also points out the value of confronting the best arguments against gay rights and refuting them with reasoned moral argumentation.
He concludes the introduction to the book with what he calls the “’Simple Argument’ in defense of homosexuality,” which he presents as follows:
For an action or practice to be morally wrong, it must have some wrong-making feature. In other words, if an action is morally wrong, there must be something about the action that makes it wrong.
Wrong-making features include the following: the action or practice i) causes harm or ii) violates some competent person’s autonomy or iii) is unfair or iv) violates someone’s individual rights or v), etc.
This second premise can be extended. It should include an exhaustive list of features that make an action or practice morally wrong.
Homosexual relations between two consenting adults do not have any of these features. In other words, i) it is not harmful, ii) it does not violate anyone’s autonomy, iii) it is not unfair, iv) it does not violate anyone’s individual rights, v), etc.
This, of course, is not to say that homosexual relations can never be morally wrong. For example, if a man is married to a woman and has secret homosexual liaisons on the side, that would be morally wrong. But it is not the homosexuality per se that makes such behavior morally wrong. What makes it wrong is that it involves betrayal and the violation of one’s marriage vows. It is wrong because it is adultery, not because it is gay adultery. The argument is intended to show only that there is nothing wrong with homosexual activity per se. Homosexual relations can be morally wrong for reasons other than that they are homosexual; but heterosexual relations can also be wrong for those same sorts of reasons.
Therefore, homosexual relations between mutually consenting adults are not morally wrong. This argument is obviously valid. To say that an argument is valid means that if the premises 1–3 are true, then the conclusion (4) must be true. The conclusion might still be false but only if at least one of the premises (1, 2, or 3) is false.
This simple four part argument is the basis for all the more elaborate arguments used to refute all the main arguments against gay rights.
In chapters 2-4 Meyers lays the foundation for his later arguments that are systematically arranged in chapter 5-10. To lay this foundation, Meyers first defines what morality is by providing an overview of the various ways moral philosophy has defined it. Some of this verges on the esoteric, but Meyers is good about bringing in the general reader. Then in chapter 3, Meyers dissects the Divine Command Theory (DCT) of right and wrong.
There is no doubt that the Bible explicitly condemns gay relations in Leviticus, but this raises a question concerning divine commands, since Leviticus also condemns, in similar terms, a variety of other things that we no longer consider morally wrong, such as prohibiting the wearing of clothing made of two different types of fiber or the eating of meat with the blood still in it. Are all of God’s commands moral commands? It appears not. How can one determine which are intended to be moral commands and which are simply commands of other sorts, such as ritual purity rules or rules that are more like membership rules. Clearly, many of the Levitical commands are of the latter sort, and would only apply to members of the Jewish religion, and Meyers concludes that this is likely the case for same-sex relations.
Chapter 4 concludes Meyer’s coverage of background material with a fairly thorough overview of the evidence that supports the contention that being gay is not a choice, and that it is in great part biologically and genetically based. Although some Conservatives still argue that being gay is a choice, most, including many in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, have finally come to view sexual orientation as something that is not a choice and that it is essentially an unchangeable part of who a person is. Much if the evidence presented will be familiar to anyone who has studied the topic in any detail, and includes reference to high concordance values for monozygotic twins, the male birth order effect and the latest epigenetic theories of how same-sex orientation might develop. It is often the recognition that being gay is not a choice that helps people become more accepting of gays. In spite of this, Meyers maintains that it is still important to show that there is no valid argument to consider gay relations morally wrong, which is what he proceeds to show over the remaining chapters.
The first argument against same-sex relations, and arguably one of the most often used, is that it is unnatural, and therefore, being unnatural, it is wrong. This argument, according to Meyers, has two flaws, first, it is not clear under what criteria same-sex relations are to be considered unnatural. If one looks to the animal world, homosexuality occurs in essentially all animals at about the same rates as in humans. To show how difficult it is to make the “unnatural” argument stick, Meyers says this:
Of course, proponents of the SNL [simple natural law] argument against homosexuality might insist that these animals are not truly gay [emphasis by author]. They may engage in same-sex relations, but not in the ways that humans do. That is probably true. But this fact works more to undermine the SNL argument than to support it. For the same can be said for heterosexuality. Nonhuman animals may engage in heterosexual activities but not in the same ways that humans do. (For one thing, these opposite-sex nonhuman animal couples do not get married.) Most human behaviors—such as eating, grooming, playing—differ in significant and important ways from analogous behaviors in nonhuman animals. Thus, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural, in the sense of not existing in nonhuman animals, fails one way or another. It is either false, incoherent, or morally irrelevant.
Meyers then proceeds to show that even if same-sex relations were determined to be unnatural, this would still not necessarily make them morally wrong, since humans do many artificial (i.e. unnatural) things that are clearly not morally wrong.
A more sophisticated argument is the “New Natural Law” argument (NNL):
There are three key features of the NNL argument: 1) claims about the intrinsic nature, or essence, of marriage and sex, 2) a list of basic goods that constitute human flourishing (which includes marriage or those goals inherent in the nature of marriage), and 3) the view that the role of government is to promote and facilitate the achievement of these basic goods.
This argument views marriage as a “natural kind” in a platonic sense. and Meyers spends a considerable amount of effort elucidating why it is difficult to define marriage in this way. His main argument against this approach is to point out that natural kinds are usually defined based on observation and description, which means that in the case of marriage, this would depend on the constraints of linguistic and social conventions. Thus, if the definition of marriage were to be expanded to include same-sex marriages, this would simply be incorporated into what makes marriage what it is.
Of course, opponents of same-sex marriage have developed even more sophisticated arguments, the best of which were used in the recent arguments before the Supreme Court. One of these is the teleological argument that genitals are designed for reproduction, and therefore any other uses they are put to are morally wrong. Firstly, as should be obvious to anyone who understands human sexuality, the genitals clearly also play the role of allowing for sexual bonding. Secondly, even if the primary purpose of the genitals were reproduction, this would not automatically mean that other uses to which they might be put would be morally wrong. Of course, opponents of same-sex marriage further up the ante by using an argument Meyers describes as NNL teleology, which further proscribes the boundaries of marriage, introducing not only the idea that reproduction is the primary goal of marriage, but that it is so in the context of a “two-in-one-flesh” construct. In other words, the only acceptable context in which sex should be allowed is to enable the bodily union of two individuals in “one flesh” for the purpose of creating offspring.
As should be obvious, and was apparent in arguments made by gay marriage proponents before the Supreme Court, such a circumscribed view of marriage would mean that only fully fertile couples could marry on moral grounds, since if they are not fertile they cannot produce offspring. This would preclude not only same-sex marriages, but also marriages between older couples, where the woman has already gone through menopause, as well as marriages where the couple never plan to have any children. In fact these arguments even would prohibit the use of birth control, oral sex, masturbation and any other sexual activity that does not normally lead to conception. It is no wonder that both Meyers and the Supreme Court have effectively countered the NNL teleology argument.
In many ways the remaining arguments refuted by Meyers are much easier to counter, but in the interests of thoroughness, Meyers forges on. One of the more common arguments that many times is expressed by the average lay person is that gay relations just “feel” morally wrong. When pressured to explain, a person will say that they do not have any solid moral reason they can identify, but it just feels wrong. This kind of argument is what is often referred to as moral dumbfounding, and psychological research has shown that such arguments are often based on the emotional feelings around disgust. Since gay sex is often considered disgusting, the subconscious then assumes that it must be wrong. Disgust can sometimes help us avoid doing something dangerous, like eating spoiled food or contaminated water, but it is also a very poor guide for making moral decisions. Meyers does an excellent job of showing why this is the case.
The remaining arguments are what can commonly be considered practical or political arguments against same-sex relations. These include slippery slope arguments, health issues, effects on the civil rights of others and negative influences on children. Many of these remain prominent reasons why some still oppose same-sex marriage.
The slippery slope arguments postulate that acceptance of same-sex marriage will result in the easier or inevitable acceptance of bestiality, polygamy and incest. Meyers points out that each of these practices is qualitatively different and none is a logical consequence of the acceptance of same-sex marriage, since each of these have very cogent moral arguments against them.
Meyers concludes his refutations by tackling the supposed negative effects that same-sex marriage has on society, according to critics, namely, that it will weaken the institution of marriage and it will negatively affect children. Much as the Supreme Court found, Meyers sees no clear-cut weakening effect of heterosexual marriage caused by same-sex marriage. One of the more prominent arguments used by critics is that by redefining marriage as being based on love, rather than procreation and child-rearing, the bonds of marriage will be weaker and people will be more likely divorce. In almost humorous fashion, Meyers shares statistics that show that states that have previously legalized same-sex marriage have lower divorce rates than states that maintained a ban on same-sex marriages (prior to the Supreme Court ruling).
It does not take too much thought to see how weak this argument is. Sure, couples will sometimes stay married “for the sake of the kids,” but is that a good thing in terms of marriage stability? Marriages that stay together primarily for the sake of the kids typically represent cases where the parental relationships are poor, and not uncommonly, once the kids grow up the parents divorce. To say that such a pattern is a good thing is dubious, at best, and if there are no kids, then maybe it is better for a couple to divorce if their relationship is so poor. Ultimately, this argument assumes that divorce is always bad and anything that prevents it is good. On the flip side, if a couple does have a solid marriage relationship based on mutual love and respect, they will likely stay married, whether or not children are involved.
Another way that same-sex marriage could affect the institution of marriage is that gays that are now in a heterosexual marriage might decide to divorce and seek out a same-sex partner. Again, this argument assumes that it is better for a gay person to stay in a heterosexual marriage, in spite of the fact that the data suggest that such marriages are often of very low quality, with the couples rarely happy. Although the acceptance of same-sex marriage might cause an initial spate of divorces of this sort, the availability and acceptance of same-sex marriage would probably prevent many such marriages from occurring in the first place as time goes on.
That same-sex marriage is damaging to children is also laid to rest. Numerous studies of children raised by same-sex parents have shown that these children are at least as well adjusted as children raised by heterosexual parents, and are also better adjusted than children raised by single parents. Even the claim by some critics, that children raised by same-sex parents will be more likely to become gay themselves has been dispelled by statistics that show no such trend. Children of gay parents are just as likely to be gay (or not) as children of heterosexual parents.
Meyers closes the book with a chapter presenting arguments in favor of gay marriage and gay rights generally. Central to this is his contention that marriage is a good thing, regardless of the sexes of the partners, because it promotes happiness and well-being. He then presents moral arguments in favor of gay marriage and gay rights, including that it is the duty of society to promote happiness (and prevent suffering), to respect autonomy and to promote virtue, and closes with political arguments based on the principles of liberty, personal rights (including the personal right to marry) and antidiscrimination.
Although Meyers is not explicitly challenging churches to uphold these same principles within their organizations, his comprehensive refutations of arguments that same-sex relations are morally wrong, and his positive moral arguments in favor of same-sex marriage and gay rights, using clear principles from moral philosophy, do still challenge churches such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church to reconsider long-held views. The Adventist Church has traditionally held that same-sex relations are wrong, even in the context of monogamy, and same-sex marriage for church members is indirectly prohibited in Fundamental Belief #23 which states that “marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship.” By limiting the definition of marriage to include only heterosexual couples, it is clear that same-sex marriage is prohibited.
In light of the arguments put forward by Meyers, and others, and the decision of the Supreme Court to bar states from prohibiting same-sex marriage, it may be time to reexamine or stance toward same-sex marriage within the Seventh-day Adventist Church as well.
Bryan Ness is a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College.
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.